WHETHER IT'S environmental debates in Rio de Janeiro, population policies in Cairo or women's issues in Beijing, United Nations conferences attract Americans' attention for a while, then fade into history. But in less-developed nations, these gatherings reverberate for years.
Before the Rio Earth Summit in June 1992, discussions of environmental issues usually put leaders of developing countries on the defensive. Poor by material standards but rich in natural resources, many of them resented the sermons from governments or advocacy groups in well-off countries about saving rain forests, cleaning up pollution or preserving wildlife.
Rio, however, gave them a new framework for these issues, a way of incorporating environmental concerns into development policies, rather than seeing environment and economy as an either-or choice. Now, many governments around the world routinely consider the environmental impact of development policies.
That trend is getting some large-scale encouragement from the World Bank which, along with other lending agencies and donors, has come to recognize that economic development must take a broad focus, one that includes the health of a country's environment as much as the strength of its infrastructure or the soundness of its fiscal policies.
Andrew Steer, director of the World Bank's Environment Department, describes a "greening" of the bank's lending process since Rio that echoes a trend seen throughout the world. In the past three years, about 80 countries have asked for help in incorporating environmental concerns into their planning processes.
"They still want to grow," he says, "but in a way that is more environmentally and socially benign."
This shift in thinking in capitals around the world and among lenders like the World Bank is good news -- and not just for the most obvious reasons. As smaller, poorer countries take up the challenge of saving the environment, they are also coming up with creative solutions that can teach rich countries some lessons.
Americans are accustomed to letting the government take the initiative in tackling big problems and to having watchdogs like the Environmental Protection Agency. That's fine, but most countries simply don't have those kinds of resources, so they must find other ways to get the job done. They're coming up with solutions that ought to draw some interest in richer countries like this one, where taxpayers are calling for smaller, more efficient government.
Market incentives are providing some promising approaches. Thailand, for example, is experimenting with a self-enforcing way of controlling industrial hazardous waste.
Companies estimate how much waste they will produce in a given year, then buy a bond to finance the handling and disposal of the waste. Some of the bond money, about one-third, is used to operate a treatment plant. The balance is refundable as the company safely delivers its waste to the plant. If the company finds ways to reduce its production of waste during the year, it can call in auditors and make adjustments in its bond arrangement.
In another example, Chile now issues fishing allotments to ease the strain on local fisheries. The permits are tradable, allowing fishing companies to buy and sell them.
And rather than trying to enforce limits on industrial emissions, China is experimenting with taxing them.
There was a time, not too long ago, when ideas about development didn't extend beyond roads, bridges and dams -- and the more grandiose, the better.
In the 1970s, it began to dawn on the World Bank and other molders of development policy that human resources were an important part of the equation. A decade later, it became clear that a government's fiscal and economic policies played a major role in the success or failure of development schemes.
Now, it's clear that the environment plays an important economic role as well. If projects are not environmentally sustainable, they are bound to fail. That, of course, only deepens the human cost of failure, since environmental crises always fall hardest on the poor. This evolution of economic-development policies may seem to have been inordinately slow. Indeed, the World Bank has earned its share of criticism for not taking a broader view.
But, as Andrew Steer says, this process is a journey in which the World Bank has sometimes led and sometimes followed. That journey now seems to be on firmer ground, but it is never over.
Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.